Review: Curtains, Rose Theatre Kingston

As our ageing population continues to, well, age, Stephen Bill’s Curtains at the Rose Theatre Kingston puts euthanasia in the spotlight.

“Fourteen more years and you’ll get your telegram from the Queen”

Stephen Bill’s 1987 play Curtains feels at once a curious choice to revive and yet an appropriate play for the Rose Kingston, a theatre that often seems to be searching for its audience, or at least the right material to put in front of it. Curtains has a play-of-the-day feel to it as it seeks to deal with its big issue and in some ways, achieves a measure of success.

The issue at hand is euthanasia. Ida’s family is celebrating her 86th birthday around her but it’s her party, she’ll cry if she wants to, for old age has ravaged her pain-wracked body and dementia is starting to take its toll. And as her three daughters and associated friends and family members gather round, cracks begin to show in their determination to have a good time.  Continue reading “Review: Curtains, Rose Theatre Kingston”

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 6

“Demons run when a good man goes to war”

And here it is, the point at which I stopped loving new Doctor Who, even in a series that has two of the best episodes it has done, and the first series that I haven’t ever rewatched in its entirety. I do enjoy Matt Smith’s Eleven immensely but the writing across this season – which was split into two for transmission – was just fatally erratic for me. Alongside the innovative work from Neil Gaiman in The Doctor’s Wife and Steve Thompson in The Girl Who Waited, two contrasting but superlative pieces of writing, stories such as The Curse of the Black Spot and Night Terrors took the show to a less sophisticated place – (or do I really mean that I started to feel that this version of Doctor Who wasn’t necessarily aimed at me…?)

Even the big finales (for there were two, one for each half) fell a little flat. The premonition that the Doctor would “fall so much further” than ever before in A Good Man Goes to War raised expectations only to be dashed by an overloaded episode with little emotional heft aside from the River Song reveal, and The Wedding of River Song suffered from the general over-use of the characters dying-but-not-really-dying trope (poor Arthur Darvill…). That said, the high points of the series are so very good – the striking US-set opening double-bill, the Doctor finally meeting the TARDIS, and brain-scratching sci-fi with real heart. Frustratingly inconsistent.

Episodes, in order of preference

The Doctor’s Wife
The Girl Who Waited
The Impossible Astronaut 
Day of the Moon
The Rebel Flesh
The Wedding of River Song
A Christmas Carol
A Good Man Goes to War
Let’s Kill Hitler
The Almost People
Closing Time
The God Complex
The Curse of the Black Spot
Night Terrors

Top 5 guest spots

1 Suranne Jones’ Idris – I think this is one of my all-time favourite performances – idiosyncratic and unexpected, interesting and deeply moving, the farewell scene as Smith’s lips start to wobble is simply heart-breaking 

2 Mark Sheppard’s work as Canton Everett Delaware III is vividly done

3 Although only appearing in voice form as Interface, Imelda Staunton still brings enormous gravitas to a striking episode

4 I love Sarah Smart and so getting two distinct versions of her Jennifer in 

The Rebel Flesh/

The Almost People was a real bonus

5 As Madame Kovarian, Frances Barber was a delicious teasing presence as her brief cameos hinted at the series arc. That her character’s fully-fleshed appearance was ultimately a little underwhelming is best swept under the carpet.

Saddest death

Idris aside, Christina Chong’s Lorna Bucket

Most wasted guest actor

Daisy Haggard, if we had to suffer the return of James Corden’s Craig, the least they could have done was give her a decent role in the story too.

Most important thing that is never mentioned again

What throws the TARDIS so off-kilter in The Rebel Flesh? A solar tsunami from our Sun you say? Oh, one of those old things

Gay agenda rating

A – Marriage equality is raised, gay marriage is shown and crime-fighting kick-ass inter-species lesbians are introduced

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Young Vic

“On the dank and dirty ground…”

Joe Hill-Gibbins’ idiosyncratic 2015 take on Measure for Measure filled the Young Vic with inflatable sex dolls so it should come as little surprise that for his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he and designer Johannes Schütz have transformed the stage into a muddy paddock. With just a mirrored back wall to add to the set, the scene is thus set for an exploration of the “subconscious” of this most oft-seen (particularly in the year gone by) of Shakespeare’s plays. 
There’s some great work, delving into the murkiness of the relationships here. Far from spirits “of no common rate”, these royal fairies feel like a real married couple in the throes of having to work things out yet again, Michael Gould’s Oberon’s manipulations as much as anguished as angry, and Anastasia Hille’s Titania relishing the removal of the ball and chain as she plays sex games with Bottom, roleplaying the attending fairies in a witty twist. The intensity of their connection repeats itself later in another clever connection. 

And casting upwards in age for the lovers complicates them in a fascinating way, especially with their clear shared sexual history here. Anna Madeley thoroughly owns it as a Helena who knows exactly what she is after in claiming back Demetrius, whilst John Dagleish’s Lysander pushes the boundaries of consent as far as he can before acquiescing to “human modesty”. The woods have rarely felt so dark and once the night is done, Jemima Rooper’s Hermia is left near-catatonic by events and Oliver Alvin-Wilson’s Demetrius seems to have been sent mad. 

But for all that it is intriguing and interesting, the production rarely struck me as compelling, it seems to bear the hallmarks of devised work a little too plainly. Melanie Pappenheim’s First Fairy is an ethereally conceived being who delivers her lines in a sing-song manner and twitches and flutters most affectedly throughout and on meeting, Lloyd Hutchinson’s Irish Puck mocks her and her acting style disdainfully. His sardonic approach is amusing, but sitting so far at odds from Pappenheim’s interpretation of fairykind, and in turn from how Oberon and Titania are presented, it feels like a disconnect. 

So too the use of music. Latin chorales emphasise the ensemble feel (though smack more of rehearsal room exercises) but once Leo Bill’s Bottom is off the leash, he’s singing soft rock classics like Aerosmith and Maria McKee’s ‘Show Me Heaven’, too often this just feels like a world not cohering. That said, the Mechanicals are highly enjoyable; Bill makes for a dramatically different, guileless Bottom than I’ve ever seen before; and for the second night in a row, the opaqueness of some Shakespearean dialogue was roundly mocked, which tickled me pink. But like many a dream, this Dream feels a bit confused and too ephemeral to linger too long in the mind.

Running time: 2 hours (without interval)
Photo: Keith Pattison
Booking until 1st April

Round-up of news and treats and other interesting things

Marianne Elliott wasted no time in making headlines twice over last week – after the announcenement of her departure from the National Theatre, it was officially been announced that she has teamed up with theatre producer Chris Harper to set up Elliott Harper Productions which will produce new work throughout 2017. The first play in the season will be Simon Stephens’ Heisenberg which will be directed by Elliott and run at a yet-to-be confirmed venue in Autumn 2017. This will be followed by Oedipus to Antigone in a new adaptation by Yael Farber who will also direct. 
But the highlight of the season looks set to be a modern revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical Company which will see the glorious Rosalie Craig take on the role of Bobbie, in a gender-reversed version of the musical about a confirmed bachelor that has been specially approved by Sondheim, once again directed by Elliott.
Not much else is known about the production or even the season, but watch this space!

Continue reading “Round-up of news and treats and other interesting things”

DVD Review: Kinky Boots

“The factory that started the century providing a range of footwear for men will go into the next century providing footwear for… a range of men.”

I don’t know what I was doing in 2005 but it wasn’t watching Kinky Boots. I don’t really remember deciding that I didn’t want to see Julian Jarrold’s film but for whatever reason, it has remained on my unwatched list but now, a decade on and with its musical adaptation now gracing the London stage, I finally got round to giving it a whirl. And it made for a fascinating watch, especially in light of having seen it in the theatre, that slightly different iteration of the story playing out in quite a different way.

The main thing I took from Tim Firth and Geoff Deane’s writing, inspired by a true story, is that struggling shoe-factory owner Charlie isn’t actually that likeable a character. Perhaps it was partly Joel Edgerton’s muted performance but there’s something a little bleak about him, his single-mindedness coming across more brutally here especially in his treatment of fiancée Nicola (as if anyone could do that to the lovely Jemima Rooper), thus making it hard to see why Sarah-Jane Potts’ Lauren would be quite so keen to step into her shoes. 

And whilst Chiwetel Ejiofor is eye-catchingly good (and surprisingly tuneful) as Lola, without the vibrancy of Cyndi Lauper’s original score and the accompanying Angels (barely present here), the character doesn’t feel edgy enough. You really notice that Lola isn’t allowed to be properly sexual, one can imagine film execs wanting her to be neutered so to speak, which throws the balance off a little, especially as there’s then little agency left in a character whose crucial act of forgiveness feels scarcely earned.

There’s good work elsewhere in the film though. Linda Bassett, Joanna Scanlan and Kellie Bright are striking as the factory-workers who reluctantly accept the changes needed to keep the company alive, Nick Frost is the boorish fight challenger (though arm-wrestling not boxing here), and Leo Bill pops up as a shady work rival and Geoffrey Streatfeild cameos as a love rival but without caring too much about Charlie, it’s hard to be too engaged with his fate. Stick with the musical I’d say.

Review: Hamlet, Barbican

“The play’s the thing”

See, after all the kerfuffle and an insane (and irresponsible) amount of press scrutiny during its three week preview period (I hope all the hit chasing was worth it for everyone concerned), there’s still a regular piece of theatre at the heart of it. A company of cast and creatives trying to make art under the most trying of circumstances, a simple truth but one that seemed to have been largely forgotten in the rush to tap into the self-perpetuating frenzy around this production of Hamlet directed by Lyndsey Turner.

Visually it is undoubtedly stunning, you can see where at least some of the inflated ticket price has gone (and whilst I’m on, £65 for stalls seats with a restricted view about which there was no warning, shame on you Barbican and Sonia Friedman Productions). Es Devlin’s opulent set has an enormous palatial grandeur about it which is latterly, spectacularly, crumbled in ruin, Jane Cox’s lighting carves out performance space beautifully from the stage, and Luke Hall’s video work is impressive too. But the play’s the thing remember, not just the production. Continue reading “Review: Hamlet, Barbican”

Review: Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

“There’s an end of outward preaching now. An end of perfection. There may be a time.”

Between this and Rules for Living, that’s two consecutive openings at the National Theatre that have been written and directed by women. Coincidence that it comes at a moment of regime change, who knows? Those more inclined to actual research might possibly tell you it’s more common you’d think but I doubt it. In any case, it’s pleasing to see Caryl Churchill getting a major production of one of her lesser-performed works at the hands of the talented Lyndsey Turner, who will soon be turning her hand to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet.

And it is an ambitious mark she has made here with Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, exploding the original six-strong casting of the show to a company of nearly twenty actors, supported by a community company of forty-odd supernumeraries. She needs the bodies too, to fit around an audacious design feat from Es Devlin which is best experienced with fresh eyes if possible, so no spoilers here. It is an inspired choice though, that both sets the scene perfectly for this world of political debate but also deconstructs meaningfully as the full scope of that debate becomes increasingly clear. 

Based on the Putney Debates of 1647 that saw elements of the English Civil War trying to uproot established notions of society for their differing brands of religious fundamentalism. The discussions around who should be granted suffrage have an obvious instancy, something reflected in the elements of modern dress that gradually seep into the production, but the more compelling argument that Churchill makes – and which remains as pertinent, if not more so, today – is around the reluctance of those who possess power to ever share it, their privilege zealously guarded at all costs then as it is now. 

Speaking of which, it is exciting to see Turner draw her cast from some of the more interesting companies around, the Lyric’s Secret Theatre gang and the Donmar’s all-female Shakespeare crew are both well represented here, alongside National Theatre stalwarts – we’re not breaking too far from the old routine here – but it does mean the likes of Adelle Leonce and Elizabeth Chan rubbing shoulders with Daniel Flynn and Alan Williams to give a fresher feel to the larger ensemble and one that feels excitingly full of potential, especially if it points to a continuing approach to casting under Norris.

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire may not be the easiest of plays to digest but this is writing that gives serious food for thought and given as topical and thrilling a production as this, the future of the National Theatre certainly looks interesting. The king is dead, long live the king.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)

Booking until 22nd June

Film Review: Mr Turner

“There’s no room for cynicism in the reviewing of art”

One might equally say there’s no room for cynicism in my reviewing of Mike Leigh’s work, such a fan of his oeuvre am I and the laidback, gruff charms of Mr Turner are no exception, confirming the iconic director in the full flush of his prime. Timothy Spall has already been deservedly rewarded for his wonderfully harrumphing performance of the last 10 years of the life of this most famous of painters and it is a compelling portrait, of a man established in his world as a bachelor, a master painter, and later a lover. Leigh’s episodic style fits perfectly into this biographical mode, dipping in and out of his life with the precision of one of Turner’s paintbrushes, colouring in a captivating collage of his later life.

Spall is excellent but around him, the women in his life provide some of the most hauntingly beautiful moments of the film. As Sarah Danby, the mistress and mother of the two daughters he would not recognise, Ruth Sheen is piercingly vivid, her barely contained fury resonating deeply. As Hannah Danby, her niece who was Turner’s long-suffering and long-serving housekeeper, Dorothy Atkinson is painfully brilliant as a woman subjugated and subdued by his wanton sexual advances, the psoriasis that afflicted her, and her deep love for the man. As “self-taught Scotswoman” and scientist Mary Somerville, Lesley Manville near steals the film in a simply beautiful self-contained vignette.

And as the woman with whom he did find happiness, Marion Bailey’s Margate landlady Sophia Booth is a gorgeous presence, full of innate warmth gentle kindness, it is the kind of performance to fill the heart with its loveliness. By the end of the film, she’s once, twice, three times a widow but one just knows she has the stoicism to bear it and she, along with us, will always have the memory of Turner’s inimitable declaration of love which is surely one of the tenderest moments committed to film all year long.

In truth, this film is just actor porn from top to bottom, familiar faces popping up in pretty much every scene and delivering some amazing work. The seconds-long, wordless cameo from Ruby Bentall and Lee Ingleby as an angry couple is just genius, the glorious Sinéad Matthews makes a formidable Queen Victoria, Nicola Sloane as a bawdy madam, Kate O’Flynn’s game working girl, James Fleet’s repressed Constable, James Norton’s enthusiastic clarinettist, Leo Bill’s cheery photographer, David Horovitch’s kindly doctor, Peter Wight’s grasping arts patron, the list literally goes on and on and on.

I need to go back to see if I can spot Fenella Woolgar who managed to pass me by, as did Janet Henfrey, and to more fully appreciate Sam Kelly’s performance as I realised very late who he was. And it feels like the kind of film that would reward rewatching, the dialogue so full of deceptively light humour, in the barbs of the critics (Elizabeth Berrington and Vincent Franklin amongst others) or the exhaustive discussion of the gooseberry at the Ruskins’ salon (Sylvestra Le Touzel and Stuart McQuarrie simpering perfectly as the parents of Joshua McGuire’s supercilious critic).

The film looks beautiful too, capturing a special something of the unique vision of how Turner saw light, and its infinite potential on the canvas – landscapes, seascapes, the human form, all gets caressed by an epic sweep that is frequently stunning. But Leigh never lets us lose sight of the human side to the artistic genius – the achingly complex relationship with Paul Jesson’s beautifully played father, the casual cruelty with which he conducted so many of his relationships, leading to the emotional gut-punch of the final scene. Mercurial, measured brilliance.

DVD Review: Sense and Sensibility (2008)

“I think we all have to find our own ways to be happy”

Who else but Andrew Davies did this adaptation for the BBC and to be sure, it is another cracker. I vividly remember loving this immensely when it aired and then being ridiculously excited as I was able to tick the actors off one by one as I saw them on the stage. From Hattie Morahan to Charity Wakefield, Dominic Cooper to Dan Stevens, Claire Skinner to the marvellous Linda Bassett, it is a wonderful cast and over the three hours of this version directed by John Alexander, they give great life to the tale of the Dashwood women as they are forced to downsize yet still find themselves suitable husbands.

Led by the widowed Mrs Dashwood (a wounded yet pragmatic Janet McTeer), eldest daughter Elinor (a magnificent performance of beautiful restraint from Hattie Morahan) and impetuous middle child Marianne (a deliciously spunky Charity Wakefield) have to dance their way through the minefield of male attention, conscious of the fact that their reduced situation may have limited them somewhat but hyper-aware of the importance in following their passion. Davies’ writing plays up the real difficulties for women stuck in a world where men make the rules and this more serious vein really works.

The trials of the family, including precocious youngest daughter Margaret, feel most convincing – the horror of moving from a Sussex mansion to a Devonshire coastal cottage, the struggles of their newly reduced circumstances, the kick in the teeth of male relatives inheriting what they feel is rightfully theirs. And as potential suitors come into view, the raising of hopes feels even more precariously balanced, with more at stake than usual whether in Cooper’s rakishly dashing Willoughby, Stevens’ inscrutably reserved Edward Ferrars or David Morrissey’s beautifully pitched Colonel Brandon.

The rest of the supporting cast is also a dream: Mark Gatiss as the pathetically limp John and Claire Skinner’s maliciously gleeful Fanny, delighted at taking over Norland and turfing out the resident Dashwoods are marvellous; Daisy Haggard and Anna Madeley as the Miss Steeles, Haggard’s country ways being a particular gently comic delight; and Linda Bassett as the well-meaning Mrs Jennings and Mark Williams as her husband are always fun. Leo Bill pops up briefly as one of the Ferrars brothers too but Jean Marsh is just epic as the fearsome matriarch whose opinion holds so much sway over which way the dating dominoes will fall.

All in all, highly recommended.

Not-a-Review: Secret Theatre show 5

“I just called to say I…”

And so Secret Theatre continues, on their fifth production now which has been devised by themselves and has a shorter run than usual as it will apparently be going to Edinburgh. So press reviews have been scrapped for this one, which may also have been motivated by the devised nature of the show, something which the UK mainstream critics automatically seem to react against. That said, I wasn’t much of a fan at all of A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts and its highly experimental structure. 

Running time: 70 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 22nd May then going to Edinburgh